WINDHOEK - Tributes and memorial commentaries on the life and work of Ruth First emphasize that she was a talented writer and one of the earliest anti-apartheid activists.
Her talent and contribution to the humanities during the apartheid era is perhaps fully captured by a citation in one of her obituaries published by The Times after her death. The Times wrote, First “was an incisive writer, a practical academic and a creative revolutionary at the heart of the liberation struggle in Southern Africa”.
First is noted to have been born on the 4th of May 1925 in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was the daughter of Julius and Matilda First. Her parents were known as radical socialists and founder members of the Communist Party of South Africa.
In that respect there is no doubt that First hails from a highly political family, an element that plausibly accounts for her eventual contribution to political development in Southern Africa.
She attended high school in South Africa and after matriculating from Jeppe High School, she enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand from 1942 to 1946. There, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts (B.A) in Social Studies with majors in Sociology, Anthropology, Economic History and Native Administration.
Moreover, whilst at Witwatersrand, she is noted to have studied alongside prominent African leaders such as Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, Eduardo Mondlane, Mozambican freedom fighter and leader of FRELIMO and Ismail Meer, the former secretary general of the South African Indian Congress.
Even though First’s political role and contribution to the struggle against apartheid goes back to her university years when she joined the Communist Party and founded a multi-racial student group in South Africa, her contribution to political development in Namibia only began after her treason trial which started in 1956.
Biographical collections on her political role cites that “she was the only woman in the inner circle of the sabotage group formed under Mandela’s leadership.”
This ultimately led to her detention together with other member of the group. However, unlike some of her fellow defendants who were charged and imprisoned, she was only detained under solitary confinement for 90 days and thereafter released.
After charges against her were dismissed, she undertook to explore Namibia’s history and its political landscape. Being a prolific writer and talented academic as she is noted to have been, she published numerous academic papers and articles on Namibia.
These includes SWA: Apartheid Colony or UN Trust”, (New African, 1965); “SWA” (Labour Monthly, London 1966) and “The Great Namibian Strike” (Sechaba, 1972).
Her research concentrated mainly on the early development of the nationalist political movement in Namibia, the role of the United Nations on Namibian issues as well as the workers’ strike of 1972.
Of utmost importance with regard to her publications is the fact that they greatly influenced political developments in Namibia.
Scholars of Namibian history note that First’s publications on Namibia did not only produce the first detailed account of the colonization of Namibia, but they also offered a new perspective on the colonial historiography of Namibia.
This concurs with Klause Dierks’ argument in the Biographies of Namibian Personalities that “First wrote the Namibian history from the standpoint of the oppressed”. A similar argument though slightly different is that of Dobble Laurent published in “SWAPO’s Struggle for Namibia, 1960-1991: War by Other Means”.
In that publication, Dobbel wrote that First’s publication entitled “South West Africa”, has provided the “best overview of the economic and social conditions which gave rise to nationalist movements in Namibia”. She was indeed one of the sources of inspiration and influence to the rise of nationalism and the struggle against colonial rule in Namibia.
First was an enemy of the apartheid regime and at times she had to endure constant harassment, detention and interrogation from the South African authorities. She was killed by a parcel-bomb that exploded in her hands on the 17th of August 1982 in Maputo.